Published on November 12, 2007
Siwaporn and her sister were heading home late one rainy night two years ago when, as they made a U-turn on Bangkok's Paholyothin Road, another vehicle travelling far too fast for the slippery surface slammed into the left rear of their car.
When the police arrived, says Siwaporn, "We insisted on everyone being given an alcohol test." She was sure she smelled booze on the other driver's breath. "But the policeman said he couldn't force the driver to take the test."
Police Lt Col Songkhram Sa-ngiampak, superintendent of the force's Traffic Police Division, acknowledges that suspects can't be compelled to take an alcohol test, even at police checkpoints and accident scenes.
It's a sobering thought as the festive season approaches.
You can legally refuse a police request to take an alcohol test. The cops admit that most drivers agree to be tested only because they think they'll be jailed if they don't.
Songkhram, of course, would prefer most people to remain ignorant of the reality. It makes his job a lot easier.
But in the meantime he's been working to amend the laws stipulating penalties and fines for those found guilty of drunk driving. If such efforts are successful, drivers could be fined anywhere from Bt5,000 to Bt20,000 and jailed for at least six months - or both - double the previous amounts.
If they cause an accident or injure someone, the penalty intensifies. If they kill someone they could be barred from driving for life.
The National Legislative Assembly has approved the changes, and royal endorsement is awaited.
"But increasing the penalties won't help when there are so many rich, well-connected people," says Sichon Keeratitanatat. He tried to persuade his fellow members of the Tiana Club, a social group for owners of Nissan Tianas, to abstain from drinking if they were going to drive home from a club party last year.
He gave up on the effort - most of the members didn't care: Their families could handle the cops or at least easily afford any penalty.
These people, Sichon says, are college graduates from wealthy families, yet they refuse to take the risk issue seriously. And it's impractical for Bangkok drivers who attend parties to leave the car at home.
"Crashing into a flower pot or being able to dodge an alcohol test is a joke for them."
Surasit Sinlapangam of the Don't Drive Drunk Foundation puts the challenge plainly: "We can't stop them from drinking, but we can encourage them to not drive after drinking."
It's not easy, admits the 12-year veteran of the campaign, but the foundation has had success in recent years in raising awareness about the potentially lethal irresponsibility involved.
The figures it sifts through indicate that 60 per cent of the 361 road deaths during last April's Songkran Festival were caused by drunk drivers. And about half of the 12,609 deaths on the highway last year and the 12,858 in 2005 shared the same cause.
Thais have many occasions for national celebrations, Surasit says, but the highest death tolls come in December and January, amid the Christmas and New Year parties.
The next worst period is in March when graduates roll out of colleges and universities with a celebratory bottle in their hand. Then comes Songkran, with its mass migration to hometowns. This month's Loy Krathong Festival is the next most dangerous.
The lowest death toll is during the Buddhist Lent, between August and October.
Surasit doesn't believe the law handcuffs police in their efforts to stop the road carnage. They have the authority to detain for further testing any driver they suspect of being drunk.
"That could see the driver end up being fined thousands of baht after all," he says.
Songkhram, who's been working on the drunk-driving issue for 14 years, maintains that it comes down to the police officer's judgement whether a driver should be fined or held.
And, it has to be said, most drivers who end up in court receive only suspended sentences. If a penalty is imposed, it's often an assignment to do some "social service".
Ben (not her real name) bailed her father out of jail early this year after he'd been busted for drunk driving. He did 60 hours of social service - and stills drinks and drives.
Ben agrees that stronger penalties are needed, "but I'm not sure if that'll stop my father from drunk driving."
"There's no point in stronger penalties if the court doesn't apply them," says Songkhram.
After Siwaporn's car was rear-ended two years ago, she was the one charged. She paid a Bt1,000 fine on a reckless-driving rap and had to pay all the associated costs.
But she didn't mind that so much. What worries her is the fact that there are so many drunk drivers behind the wheel - maybe the one in her case too, who was eventually fined Bt500 for refusing the alcohol test.
"He didn't have to take any responsibility," she says, "and just walked away with a tiny fine!"